“All that’s left to chart
Is nothing less than your own heart”
Jenny woke up with her hand on her service weapon. Luckily, she registered the soapy lavender scent that meant Ducky's place and let go of the gun's butt before opening her eyes.
Tony was standing at the guest room's door, wearing the tank top and boxers he'd gone to sleep in and his hair sticking in all directions. The room was bright and Tony - his hand still on the light switch - looked guilty. Jethro’s and Ducky’s oldest must have deliberately gone for the lights as the safest way to wake her up, and then noticed exactly where her hand went as she startled awake.
"What happened?" she asked, because if this was good news there was no way Tony would be standing silent and still.
Jenny sat up, feet flat on the floor, in the time it took her to blink. "What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean, uh…" He looked to the side and then reached and pulled Abby into the frame. "You found her, you tell her," he informed his younger sister.
No taller than her brother's shoulders and wearing a Nightmare Before Christmas babydoll, the girl looked like a ninth-grader instead of a going-on-eighteen college kid. Not that the lack of her defensive shield of makeup, wedges and goth jewelry affected Abby's confidence one bit. The girl crossed her arms on her chest and glared at her brother. "You mean I didn't find her," she said. Then she turned to Jenny. "I woke up and I couldn't go back to sleep so I figured I'd go make myself a cup of cocoa, because that's what Dad or Pa would do, and it must have taken me forever to find the – "
"Abby," said Jenny.
"Right. TLDR – or TLDL really – "
"Abby," Jenny repeated, more firmly.
"Z-brat's door was open, so I peered in because she never sleeps with her door open, and I was right because she wasn't there."
"At which point Abby woke me up," said Tony. "And I called Ziva except, surprise surprise, she left her cell behind. Didn't take anyone else’s, either."
This didn't surprise Jenny any. If Ziva left the house in the middle of the night then she did not want to be found, and if Ziva did not want to be found then she would not take anything that had a GPS signal.
That still left the original questions of where could fourteen-year-old Ziva go to in the middle of the night that she would not want to be found.
"She probably just went to sleep in her tree or something," said Abby. Her voice was unconcerned but, if that was true, she would have never woken up her big brother.
Jenny stood up. "Let's take a look at her room," she suggested.
Abby did have a point, Jenny figured. Jethro was the only person in Ziva's foster family that the girl had any trust in. His amnesia had to upset her badly, regardless of what Jethro's and Ducky's kids perceived. Ziva had an unusual upbringing, to say the least, and was more than capable of going into the woods at 2 a.m. and feeling safer than in a house full of other human beings.
That hopeful thought vanished with the first glance at Ziva's room. Jenny checked the wardrobe, the drawers and under the bed just to make sure, and then straightened her back and pronounced: "She isn’t wearing her trail shoes."
Tony seemed doubtful. "What, she wouldn't go hiking in sneakers?"
"She'd totally do that just to confuse us," said Abby.
She wouldn't, Jenny knew. Ziva was more like their ex-Marine of a father than any of her foster siblings seemed to grasp. Ziva would not go into the woods at night wearing sneakers, particularly not if she was upset and terrified.
Ziva had gone out in the middle of the night wearing her street sneakers, not her trail shoes or her pro running ones, and Ziva never did anything without a clear purpose.
If what Jenny thought was true, then she was going to kill the girl when they finally caught up to her, assuming the girl hadn't gotten herself killed first.
"Aunt J?" asked Tony as Jenny strode out of Ziva's room and towards the stairs without saying a word. "Hey, wait up!"
Jenny said nothing as she went downstairs, the two kids following her, and then to the garage door. She knew she was right even before she hit the light switch: there was a shadow missing in the garage.
"My bike!" screeched Abby. "Z-brat took my bike!"
Jenny sincerely hoped that the drugs that finally knocked Ducky to sleep, after nearly a hundred hours of alertness, would keep him sleeping through this demonstration of Abby’s healthy lungs. Timmy, who knew his siblings, would probably have the sense to stay in his room so long as the house was not on fire.
"Probably has the fake ID to go with it, too," she said out loud. Tony might be able to tell her calm for the trained adrenaline reaction it was, but Tony knew to take his comfort where he could and always keep his siblings in line.
"Where would she go that she'd need actual wheels?" he asked.
"Well, it's not like she cares about anything or anyone," snapped Abby. "She probably just took it for the hell of it or, I don't know, to crash it. Bet she'd think that's hilarious."
"Abby!" said Jenny sharply. "Stop that right now. Just because Ziva doesn't express her emotions in the same way that you do does not mean that she doesn't have any." Abby would know that, under most circumstances. But with one parent having barely survived an explosion and denying having a partner and kids, Abby was entitled to behave more like a normal teen and less like the precocious young person she usually was.
Abby opened her mouth –probably to say something else obnoxious – but Jenny cut her off. "I'm going to get her," she said: calm, precise, authoritative. "Tony, you hold the fort until I'm back."
"Yes, ma'am," he said automatically, fingers in an iron grip on his sister's shoulder. And then, in a more normal tone of voice, "You know where she went?"
"Ziva never does anything without a purpose," she told him as she moved back into the house. She needed to get dressed and grab her purse and gun. "And there is only one place she'd need to get to tonight that she'd consider outside walking range."
At first Jethro didn't know what had woken him up. Then he saw the girl. Five foot three, maybe a hundred pounds, dark curly hair, large eyes –
"Who are you?" he demanded. His voice was still scraped raw from the explosion.
Ziva. He'd heard that name. "You're one of my kids." He'd swallowed back the supposed between the ‘my’ and the ‘kids’.
She didn't blink as she said: "You don't remember having kids."
She was unnaturally calm, for a kid. No; he's heard kids like that before. But there was no reason for an American kid to have all the markings of a kid soldier.
He struggled into a sitting position. "It's what, two in the morning?" he asked as he carefully maneuvered so that his legs dangled over the side of the bed. That was better, less hospital-like.
"Who drove you?"
"I drove myself."
He gave the kid – what was she, fifteen at most? – another look. Her t-shirt and cargo pants were loose, baggy almost, and no one who wasn't trained military should be able to stand so still. Factoring in the likely hand-to-hand training and the funky biology of girls that age, Jethro updated his estimate to a 120 or 130 pounds, and wondered if she had a knife stashed on her person somewhere that she'd gotten past hospital security. She would, this one. She had those eyes.
"And you're one of mine?" he asked, suspiciously.
"Foster care," she answered without hesitation. "My father is stationed overseas."
"And your mother?" he asked. Only so many options, though, if the girl was in foster care.
"Living across the pond with her family," she said.
Divorced, then; not dead. As good as dead in terms of raising her child, though. And the father deployed. The irritation pulsed slow and loud like the bone-deep bruises from the explosion. You had a duty to your country, but you had a duty to your family, too, especially if the other parent was out of the picture. “Did I take you in as a favor to your old man?” he asked. He rather hoped that answer would be a negative.
The girl smiled humorlessly. “I’d hardly call this a favor.”
Well. Whoever his fifteen-years-later self was, at least he had that much in common with the man.
"You do not remember," she said.
"That’s right," he said, trying to push back the annoyance. The girl wasn't blinking nearly enough. "Or didn't anyone tell you?"
"They told me."
"You didn't believe it?"
She was lying. "Then why are you here?"
She stepped closer to the bed, well into his personal space and – he suspected – hers as well. "You are married to Donald 'Ducky' Mallard," she said. "He is a medical examiner with the county. You met on a case. Thirteen years ago you took Anthony DiNozzo and Abigail Sciuto as foster children. You adopted both a year later, a few months before receiving Kaitlin Todd into your care, and Timothy McGee eight months after that. They are Anthony, Abigail and Timothy Gibbs-Mallard, now."
Yes, I had that repeated to me a hundred thousand times today. He wasn't even tempted to tell her that, though. There was one name she mentioned that Jenny and the man who said he was Jethro's husband hadn't, and that name tugged at his memory – no, Kate’s name pulled at his mind with canines and claws.
"Kate," he said. This girl – Ziva – hadn't repeated Kate's name with the others', and Jethro knew why: Kate was the next point in the daisy chain that began with Shannon and Kelly. "Kate is dead."
"Yes," agreed Ziva.
The words fell from his lips, feeling more than memory: "She was murdered."
There was a split-second hesitation before Ziva said that, the first overt sign of emotion she’d given since he woke up and found her there – no, since Ziva had very deliberately woken him up. He knew Ziva, too, but not because he remembered her; he didn’t. She’d been raised Marine, this kid.
This kid who, what? Stole a car, snuck into his hospital room, woke him up and proceeded to calmly tell him something that his adult visitors hadn’t dared to.
“When did this happen?” he asked, stalling
“Thirteen months ago.”
There, in the way she said it. Kate’s murder meant something to her, too. When did he learn to listen to people this way? “When was your father deployed? When did I take you in?” he asked.
The confirmation was in her voice, not in her words, as she said: “Twelve months and three weeks ago.”
He didn’t ask why Kate was murdered; first because one of the dry voices in the back of his head listed one common motive after the other, and then because he knew, just like he remembered Kate’s perfect posture and educated snark, and those used to drive someone – Tony? – crazy. Kate had been murdered because some asshole did not see her as a beautiful, brilliant, driven young woman but as a means to an end, a tool to hurt Jethro.
Instead, he asked: “Who murdered Kate?”
Ziva flinched. She tried to hide it, but this was raw, and in a sudden implosion of weariness Jethro knew that he had, indeed, been seeing people flinch like this for a very long time. So Ziva flinched and she said, harshly, angrily: “You already know that.”
“Ari.” The name came on its own; the name, a face alight with mirthless laughter, and all the hatred Jethro felt for the boy. “Ari killed Kate.”
“To get at me.”
He said it to stall, to buy time while he sorted through his reactions. He hadn’t noticed that he put his hands forward until Ziva put hers in his, unprompted. His hands closed around hers automatically; she had strong hands, good hands, that could do much work.
Ari’s face in his memory had familiar eyes. Jethro spelled the realization out loud: “He was your brother.”
“Through my father,” she said. She sounded as if the words were broken glass coming up her throat.
“Ari killed Kate,” he repeated, and now he knew, now he knew why Ziva had come to him, why this was what she’d chosen to say. “And you killed Ari.”
“Everyone else thinks that you did,” she said. More glass shards.
Of course they did. He could never let them know. Ari would have killed him, and without Ziva – “You killed Ari,” he repeated, more certain this time. “For me.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat, a whine, and Jethro pulled her in even before memory crashed down on him like an avalanche.
“It’s all right,” he whispered, cradling the crying girl against her chest, hiding his own tears in her hair. “It’s going to be all right now.”
“...back in time, to the moon...”
He didn’t say anything before he left, not to explain. He doesn’t think he needed to. He’s left all his things behind, those that didn’t matter (clothes, the case full of medals and commendations) and those that did (the half-finished boat in the basement, the photo albums he’s taken out of their careful hiding and left for Ducky to find), and, anyway, Ducky always knows how to interpret Jethro’s silence, always understands everything that Jethro doesn’t say and the reasons he doesn’t say it.
Everything that ever matters, anyway. Jenny would glare at him and threaten to hit him upside the head if he’d told her that; Ducky would give him the look he usually reserves for Tony when he broke a girl’s heart because he thought she was too good for him and knew it, and breaking up with her would hurt less than the other way around. Jethro knew what it says about him, that Ducky would give him that look. He can play out the whole conversation in his head.
He knew he was being a complete idiot, an utter ass, and justifying that second ‘b’ while he was at it. That was exactly why he was in Miami, and not coming home until he could have that conversation with Ducky and not use interrogation tactics on the person who had rebuilt Jethro from dust back into a human again.
That’s one reason he is a thousand miles away from home. The other is that he still sees the Cape Fear exploding, still hears his own voice yelling his resignation as he himself is passively watching it all from the side.
The war stopped at your front steps. You did not go to war to bring it back with you to hurt the ones for whom it is all for. If you couldn’t leave the war with the dust on your boots, then you had no business coming home.
He is sitting on a street bench on Miami’s boardwalk, surrounded by bustling life and human happiness on every side, and none of it makes it through the screen of death that’s stuck to his skin, taped over his eyelids.
He can hear the Humvee – can tell that it’s a Humvee – even over the noise. He knows who’s city he’s come to. Even knowing that, though, he cannot quite hear the man approach until that’s his breath right behind Jethro’s back, and his voice saying, in that low and threatening drawl that seems to be his only tone:
“You’re in my city.”
“Was I supposed to register at the gate?”
“No.” Beat. “But ‘hello’ would not have gone unappreciated.”
“Hello, old friend.”
“It’s a little bit funny talking to an invisible voice.”
“Was that an invitation?”
“Might as well sit down if you’re going to talk.”
It took several long seconds for Horatio to make his way around the bench and sit down. Typical; Horatio only did not put on his don’t-spook-the-horses if he was actively trying to kill you.
Horatio had aged since Jethro had last seen him. It was to be expected, of course, as it had been years. Still, this was - noticeable.
“You’re a long way from home,” Horatio said.
So that’s what it’s going to be like. Jethro knew an interview opening when he heard it. “Haven’t ditched my cell phone,” he said, feigned-flippant, returning the serve, “and I still don’t believe Timmy when he says he wasn’t the one who hacked the Pentagon three years ago.”
Horatio shook his head and asked, in one of his best concerned tones of voice: “Why?”
Quick game change. Perversely, it made Jethro relax somewhat. “Why, what?”
Horatio leaned back against the bench and looked out at the horizon. Jethro knew to read the gesture of symbolic privacy as a warning, but he still wasn’t prepared for Horatio to ask, back in his monotone: “Is it Shannon, the ship that did not have an accident, or something else?”
It was several long seconds before Jethro had enough air to say: “You’re a real piece of work, Horatio.”
“Not Shannon, then.”
“‘Assault of a police officer’ does not seem like a good enough reason to not punch you in the face right now.”
Jethro said it aggressively, forcefully; another man would have flinched back and looked away. Horatio might as well have not heard him at all.
“You are not a man who hides, my friend,” said Horatio. “Nor are you a man who runs away.”
Horatio didn’t push it, didn’t add, It’s only understandable if your friends are worried or any other junk along that line. As a result, Jethro had to consider the option himself as he plotted possible serves and counter-serves.
Horatio Cain was one of very few people who could be as big of a bastard as Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He was useful to keep around that way.
“They shouldn’t have to deal with this,” Jethro said eventually.
The promptness of Horatio’s reply suggested that he’d already figured it out. “Where by ‘they’ you mean your family, and by ‘it’ you mean yourself.”
Jethro said nothing.
“You are doing the opposite of protecting them,” Horatio said.
“The hell –”
“You are trying,” Horatio said, cutting him off, “to leave the past on the other side of the doorstep. Instead, you’re teaching them what you’d rather forget: the agony of helplessness to help one’s family.”
“Go to hell, Horatio.”
Horatio stood up. “Take care, Jethro,” he said. “Have a safe return. And give Donald my regards.”
Horatio didn’t bug him again; the man said what he had to say, and he would leave Jethro be unless Jethro would get involved in something that required Horatio’s professional attention. Jethro had known that when he came to Horatio’s city. He forgot to take Calleigh Duquesne into account, though.
The woman slid into the chair across from him the next day at breakfast, cool and collected as always. Calleigh was easy to underestimate, if you didn’t know her: small, slim, blonde woman in a pastel shirt, ridiculously white pants and a rather impractical pair of heels. Most people didn’t look for the gun – and Calleigh packed double when she was on duty – and they certainly didn’t expect this magnolia to be made of diamond.
“Justifying that second ‘b’, are we, Jethro?”
Jethro very carefully didn’t blink, and revoked his assessment of her. Calleigh was a scalpel, in terms of conversation, not even a fencing sword. As a conversation opener, this was a hammer stroke.
“Good morning to you, too,” he said, because she’s just earned it. “Coffee?”
If she’d meant that opening just to wake him up – which she was perfectly capable of – then that would have been her cue to say something about the difference between his jet fuel from human coffee. Instead, she said: “Do I look like I’m here for small talk?”
“No, but I am trying to have breakfast.”
She considered him for a moment and then, abruptly, leaned back in her chair. “You really have no idea, don’t you.”
“No idea about what?”
Marisol. Eric Delco’s pretty sister - well one of Delco’s pretty sisters, who was fighting cancer and who’d taken a shine to Horatio, who was too smart to do anything but hold to a jewel like that with both hands. Jethro put his coffee down before he’d drop it.
“Did the disease...?”
“She was shot dead,” said Calleigh, each word a curve ball. “On the day of their wedding.”
On the day of their wedding. Breathing very carefully, Jethro struggled to piece together the timeline. He knew when Horatio’s wedding date was; it was just impossible, somehow, to plot that on the same timeline that had Pinpin Pulla, the Cape Fear, and losing fifteen years of his life bracketed between them.
“What happened?” he asked. His voice wasn’t steady, but right at that moment Jethro genuinely couldn’t care.
It was a few more seconds before Calleigh said, “Horatio pissed off the Mala Noche. They thought killing Marisol would scare him off.” Pause. “Instead they pissed him off. Him and Eric.”
Jethro let out a slow breathe. He knew what that was code for. “I take it there was a trip abroad in there?” he asked anyway.
“Yes,” said Calleigh. “There was.”
She said it just a touch too slowly, and that was when Jethro recalled just what she and Horatio were like, on the job. She was more than Horatio’s XO; on a good day, the two of them were like two arms of the same body. She was a lioness, Calleigh, territorial and protective, and one of the least forgiving people on Earth if someone was stupid and arrogant enough to deliberately hurt one of her own.
Calleigh and Horatio were like two arms of the same body, and Eric was Calleigh’s not unlike Jenny was Jethro’s; and Calleigh was Horatio’s lieutenant. She was the one carrying the weight of the lab until this would wash out, she had to be the one picking up the pieces, too – and no one could pick up the pieces of something like that without getting cut in the process.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He hoped she’d be able to tell that it was real.
Calleigh nodded slowly, and then leaned forward, massaging her temple. “About that coffee?”
He flagged a waitress and ordered coffee for the both of them, giving Calleigh the moment to collect herself.
It shook him enough to clear his head, just a little, enough to work out the timeline. He was chasing down Pinpin Pulla when Horatio’s wife got shot, probably in front of the man’s eyes, knowing the Mala Noche.
The waitress brought a small plate of biscoti with their coffee that he hadn’t asked for. Calleigh smiled and thanked her, though, so that was good enough.
Calleigh took a sip from her coffee, and said nothing of the way he’d ordered it. Brave woman.
“Tell me you have a good enough reason,” she said, “and I’ll believe you.”
He almost asked, Reason for what? but he didn’t. She’d take his word, Calleigh said; he got to choose what he thought he needed to account for.
“I have a good enough reason,” he said.
She nodded: not slow, not abrupt, merely acknowledging.
They both nearly finished their coffee when she said: “I don’t know what happened, and right now, I don’t think I need to know. But here’s what I do know.” She put her cup down and leaned forward with both her elbows on the small table. “There are people, alive, who love you. Nobody knows how long that’s going to last. And you are not where they are.”
He tried to reply, he did, but all he could do was shake his head slightly. Too much, of too many things: he couldn’t unravel it. He didn’t think anyone could.
One week after, he is sitting on a street bench on Miami’s boardwalk, watching the sunrise over the water with a coffee in his hand as the first sea-kids of the day run into the water with their boards in hand. The coffee doesn’t quite have tang, the light isn’t quite saturated and the noise of the waking city is a little to the side from where Horatio’s at.
No one is coming for him, though, and he thinks that that’s as good as it gets.
“When will you wake up and see?
The farther you get, the closer to me”
It had to make sense, somehow. In a year’s time or so he’d look back and laugh at himself for having ever thought that clearly God had hit the kind of absinthe that was nowadays illegal.
Assuming that, in a year’s time or so, Tony’s family would be reasonably in touch with reality and on speaking terms with one another, and none of them would have strangled one another or hung themselves. Tony was reasonably sure that given these conditions, the present situation would turn out to make sense, but he wasn’t at all sure he and his family would get there.
Three months before, Tony had a pretty sweet life. He had the two most awesome dads in the world; two younger siblings who actually made up for being insufferable know-it-alls who got into college before they were legal in any way; and Tony was balancing the study and social aspects of college pretty well, even if he said so himself.
They were all still reeling from Kate’s murder, of course, but they were pulling through it. Tony was feeling still like half of him died when Kate was murdered, but he was beginning to believe Dad when he said that it won’t always be this way; Timmy didn’t wake up at night quite as often; Abby didn’t actually hit any of them if they’d forgotten to tell her where they were going or were a few minutes off schedule; Dad’s eyes twinkled again, sometimes; and Pa got stern again. Some days, Tony would even admit that the freak of a girl Pa not-exactly-adopted had something to do with that, too.
Then Pa got blown up, under circumstances that Aunt Jenny refused to explain. They could’ve pulled through that, really, because Pa was tougher than steel and so was Pa’s family, except Pa woke not knowing them for family. Pa woke up the man he was before Abby and Tony, before Aunt Jenny, before Dad; he woke up grieving for a woman and a girl even Dad had not known.
If Tony was Dad, it would’ve broken his heart even worse that it was ice-princess Ziva who’d gotten through to his husband. Dad was better than that, though, and for a few days in there it looked like their life would begin to resemble itself again at some point.
Except then something else happened that Aunt Jenny wouldn’t explain, and Pa just took off.
Tony used to think that he would never be angrier with someone than he was with the man who had impregnated the woman who’d given birth to him. Three weeks after his Pa went UA, Tony realized that he’d been wrong. There was only so much a ten-year-old could understand about the world and about other people, and so there was only so much anger that a ten-year-old could have or understand. Tony was twenty-one, now. He knew a lot more, he loved a whole lot more, and he was a hell of a lot angrier.
Dad said that Pa was probably suffering the most of them all; Aunt Jenny said that Pa was only trying to protect them as always and that like always, he’d return. Until that happened, Tony told college that he would talk to them later because in the meantime, Tony had to make sure that Dad ate and did not wear the same clothes three days straight; that Timmy slept at least two nights a week and talked to someone who was not in a computer; and that Abby did not really live off of Caf-Pow. The best thing he could do for Ziva was grocery runs, because it turned out the girl cooked better than he and always remembered the laundry first.
Tony only joked about offing himself because it got more attention out of Aunt Jenny. Tony was far from the best man for the job, but he was the only one who was present enough to do it.
And then Ziva’s school called, and said that a boy had been found with his neck snapped who Ziva had beat up half a year prior (said boy having put something in another girl’s drink at a school dance, and Ziva being – well, Ziva) and the girl herself was nowhere to be found.
Tony had only not gone and shot himself in the head because he was entirely too shocked to do so.
So maybe one day at least a year in the future, if they were all still alive and sane and talking to each other – which at present Tony doubted very much – perhaps Tony would understand how Ziva had talked Abby into tracing Pa and not telling anyone (not just the adults, but Tony and Timmy too), and then talked Pa into taking the next plane to DC; how Pa had managed to find the teacher who’d tried to frame Ziva (another kid, Tony could get that, but a teacher was a whole different level of ick) and gotten the scumbag to turn himself in and confess - before anyone, even Aunt Jenny, even knew that Pa was back.
In the meantime, if they had any chance of not going crazier and not offing each other or themselves - well, it was someone else’s job. Tony’s frat pals gave him a place to crash, and Tony was not talking to his family until someone who wasn’t goddamned Ziva got their head out of their ass long enough to give a shit about him.
And if Abby called or texted him even one more time, Tony would wash his cell down the toilet.
Tony woke up to discover that he had a hangover, was quite possibly still drunk, the frat house’s common room looked even more like a dump site than the usual, and his Pa was sitting right across from him. There was also a familiar-looking and familiar-smelling paper cup on the table within arm’s reach of the couch Tony was lying on.
“Seriously,” said Tony, refusing to notice how his mouth felt like the Sahara or how ashamed he felt, “you went to all this trouble just to bring me your shit coffee?”
“No,” said his Pa evenly. “My coffee is not shit. This is your shit coffee, with all the junk you usually ruin your coffee with.”
“Let me rephrase,” said Tony. He sat up carefully, so as to not make his head fall off his shoulders. “What are you trying to fix by bringing me coffee?”
“I’d say your hangover,” his Pa said evenly, “but that’s going to take a pound of bacon and a palm full of Tylenol by the looks of you.”
“Oh, you’re judging me now?”
“No. I’m just stating the facts.”
“‘Stating the facts’, huh? Is that how we roll, now?” Tony rubbed his palm against his eyes. “So let me state you some ‘facts’. Like, right now, I don’t know why I should believe you give a shit.”
Beat. “Ten years count for nothing, do they?”
“You tell me, Sir.”
A muscle jumped in the man’s face. From a man who could maintain the same bland expression for hours on end, this said more than turning a table from another man. Good. Tony used that word knowing precisely how much it ticked the man off.
Even if it made for a very long, very uncomfortable pause. Tony gritted his teeth and looked down at the floor. He wasn’t going to talk, and he was certainly not going to touch the fucking coffee.
Then the man said, “Good job.”
“Good job?” Tony repeated. He lifted his head. “Good job?” he demanded, standing up. Anger-adrenaline was the best hangover medicine, who knew. “‘Good job’, what?” Tony spread his arms. “Are you being ironic or something?”
The man remained seated. “Good job looking after your family,” he said.
“Fuck you,” said Tony. “Seriously, fuck you.” He swallowed, twice, and changed tack. “My family, now? Not yours?”
“Mine too,” the man said quietly, “but I thought you wouldn’t appreciate it right now if I said ‘our’ family.”
Tony swallowed again. “Damn right I wouldn’t. I don’t even know why...”
“Tony...” His Pa stood up, spread his arms to the sides, let them drop again. “I didn’t try to make anything right by bringing you coffee. And I’m not trying to make anything right with what I’m saying right now. You think I don’t know that that’s not how it works?”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Being here,” his Pa repeated quietly. “That’s maybe the only chance I have of making any of this right. But if you tell me to turn around and walk out that door, Tony, if you say that I might as well not try at all, then I would.”
Tony opened his mouth, having half the mind to tell him to go, but, like all those times he’d longingly thought of Dad’s medicine and of that lovely chef’s knife, that was only a fantasy. Tony looked down, and then remembered to close his mouth. He opened it again, to try and say something else – not ‘don’t go’, but still something else – and closed it again and shook his head, wrapping his arms around his body as he did so. Tony was done.
“Hey,” his Pa said. “Hey,” he said again, and this time he sounded closer. “Hey,” for the third time, and there were fingers on Tony’s shoulders, carefully prying Tony’s hands away where they were digging holes into his own flesh. “You are the best son a man could ask for, Tony. You looked after your own, after your siblings and after those of us who should have been looking after you. You are a better son,” and his Pa’s voice grew thick, hands settling on Tony’s arms, “then I have a right to ask for and I’m sorry, Tony, that you had to prove yourself this way. I’m sorry –”
“Don’t apologize.” It wasn’t Tony’s voice. It was a stranger’s voice, hoarse and shattered. “Sign of weakness.”
For one terrifying moment he thought his Pa was going to say those words again, but instead the man said, “So’s being hugged by your Pa where your frat brothers might see you.”
Tony tried to smile, but it didn’t exactly work out. “Go somewhere else? But I’m not exactly presentable right now.”
His Pa didn’t seem to remember how to smile, either. “I don’t think that the rest of the family will care. Though your sisters might have a few choice words for you.”
Once upon a time, the strangled noise that Tony made could have been laughter. “They would.”
One day, at least a year in the future, these three months might make sense, somehow. They'd need to all make it there, all of them alive and no crazier than they already were and on speaking terms with one another, but Tony was beginning to believe that they just might manage to do that.